The Germans invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. By Christmas they were near Moscow, where they stalled for the winter. In Summer 1942 they attacked again, this time in Southern Russia. Eventually, the German Sixth Army fought its way into Stalingrad. There it got trapped and had to surrender in early 1943. After more fighting in Summer 1943, the Russians were ready to go over to the attack in Summer 1944. Operation Bagration was the greatest battle of the Second World War. By the end of the summer the Red Army had destroyed the German Army Group Centre and reconquered the Ukraine, Belorussia, and eastern Poland.
“The Star” (2002) is set during the preparations for “Bagration.” Red Army commanders want to identify the location of important German troop units before the attack. They want to target the German units with air and artillery attacks before launching their own offensive. In this particular story, they want to find the Waffen SS armored division “Wiking” (part of Himmler’s private army). A local commander details a captain (who looks like the Russkie Tom Cruise) to lead a small patrol behind German lines to find “Wiking.”
The movie is conventional in one sense. The scout team is made up of “representative” figures from the multi-ethnic Soviet Union of the time. The captain and his side-kick are Cossacks (they are shown riding horses easily and the sidekick has a fur hat, so they’re Cossacks); there is a Tatar sharpshooter who practices as a shaman on the side; there is the wimpy college-boy radio operator-translator who mans-up in the end; there are three other guys I can’t place because I don’t speak that much Russian, but I’m sure that they are representative “types.” In this sense, it is just like any American war movie: struggle against a common enemy dissolves difference and creates unity. Also, at the other end of the radio link is a young woman named Katya. She has fallen for the Cossack captain and rebuffs the commander who ordered the patrol when he wants to make her his “field wife.”
It is less conventional in other ways. For one thing, this is a post-Communist Russian movie. There are pictures of Stalin and Lenin on office walls, but none of the men are Communists. For another thing, there is nothing hi-tech about this mission. They have camo smocks to wear over their uniforms and a little radio-telephone to lug around so that they can report to headquarters. (Nobody knew Morse code because it took too long to learn. All training was pretty bare-bones compared to what Americans got.) Other than that, they have sub-machine guns and pistols and knives. Mostly, they skulk in the woods and report what they see.
For yet another thing, the movie is casually explicit about the brutality of the war. There’s a boot with a leg in it; there’s a river full of corpses of Red Army POWs murdered by the Germans; there’s a brief tracking shot that runs from bucolic idyll-to-burned farmhouse-to-hanged peasant family; there is a German with a bayonet shoved all the way through his neck. Conversely, the Russian patrol habitually kills the Germans they capture along the way. It isn’t out of revenge. They just can’t take prisoners along on a secret mission. Until they capture an SS general. Of course, that brings the Germans after them in hot pursuit. Will they succeed in their mission? Will they escape?